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Scythian “baba”

Anthropomorphic stone statues quietly dying in local history museum
06 March, 10:58
Photo courtesy of the author

This unique display on Dvortsova St. attracts the passerby by the statues’ exotic appearance. They seem to emit some cosmic energy. [In Scythian times, such statues were commonly used as grave markers, connected with cults of the dead among nomadic people. Those erected in Ukraine were left by Scythian and Sarmatian tribes of the 7th to the 4th century BC, and by Turkic peoples of the 6th to 13th century, particularly by the Cumans. In steppe Ukraine, most of these statues were apparently female – hence the name, “baba” that literally means “granny” or “old woman.” Most such figures are in standing or sitting positions. – Ed ].

As it is, this singular collection of six statues, the largest in Ukraine, dating to the 6th-4th cc. BC, is left by the local authorities to the mercy of the elements. Three of them were inherited from the city’s first local history museum under the able guidance of Vladimir Yastrebov (1855-98), local historian, archeologist and ethnographer. He was the one who discovered the anthropomorphic stone statues in the steppe part of Ukraine bordering on the Dnipro River, currently known as Prydniprovia. Kirovohrad now has only eight items on display (one Neolithic anthropomorphic stele, six Scythian statues, and one medieval Polovtsian “baba”) that still can be regarded as a distinguished collection.

Among the statues are ones made of red granite, dating back to the 6th century BC, discovered by K.A. Abertasov in 1883 when digging on the “kurhan” ancient burial mound near what was then Stanishyne, currently Sokilnyky, a village in Znamianka raion. Others were of pink granite, probably from 7th century BC because the precise location was never determined (some researchers believe it was Lyta Mohyla or Melhynovsky Kurhan near Kucherivka, a village in Znamianka raion). These were dug up back in 1763 as ordered by Aleksei Melgunov. There are ones of fine-grained pink granite, dating back to 5th century BC, discovered by Ninel Bokii in 1985 near the village of Kutsevolivka (Onufriivka raion); ones of gneiss (6th century BC), discovered in 1880 (?) by Ya. G. Erdeli, then landowner, near Erledivka a local village (then renamed Lenin Village of Mala Vyska raion); ones of red and black granite (6th-5th century BC), discovered by Oleksii Terenozhkin when digging up a burial mound near Mederove, a village in Kirovohrad raion; pink granite (6th-5th century BC) found by V.F. Yeliseev in 1989, in the vicinity of Inhulo-Kamianka, a village in Novhorodka raion.

According to Mykola Tupchiienko, with a “Candidate of Sciences (History)” degree, museum workers were against the replacement of the Scythian statues; they said their placement on city streets could damage them, but all had to act as ordered from “upstairs” – in that case, from the head of the ideology division of the regional department of the Communist Party of Ukraine. As Kirovohrad oblast’s number-one communist ideologue, he said that the Scythian statues had to be out on the street, for all to see them. Otherwise those responsible would leave his office with their party membership cards on his desk [the worst punishment, save for a term in prison, for a Soviet apparatchik. – Ed.]. The experts knew that this was crazy, but there was nothing they could do. They did as told.

Scythians treated such stone statues as idols who were supposed to keep them safe. The first ones emerged in steppe Ukraine in the mid-first millennium BC. Any artist will tell you that all of them are primitively designed, and will agree that this just doesn’t agree with what the historians generally agreed about the Scythians, that they had a “wild” creative style most likely inherited from Old Greece.

The statues of male warriors, fully armed, are made of monolithic boulders that were first roughly hewn, then skillfully turned into low relief shapes with a chisel. Most of these warriors were portrayed as wearing a helmet, a broad belt with a sword, battleaxe, and a heavy necklace testifying to their status. Typically, there were three or four items found on them – horn, quiver, dagger, and/or sword.

There are thousands of Scythian diggings that are well studied and exposed to public view. However, considering that the Scythian “baba” anthropomorphic stone statues are generally considered as tombstones, it appears impossible to attribute their locations to the historic sites: not in ancient Scythian graveyards. Archaeologists are still divided on their functional status.

Before the 17th century, these “baba” statues were found on all known Ukrainian routes, but the attitude to them cardinally changed at the turn of the 20th century, with the local rural residents vandalizing them, using the stone as construction material, and with landlords ordering such statues moved to their estates. In the end, most of the “baba” statues were moved from their original sites and eventually used as boundary signs – or as whetstones, so that a number of important features of the images were lost forever.

Archaeologist Mykola Tupchiienko points out the interesting coincidence between the discovery of early Scythian statues and the largest, most noted burial sites unearthed. There is a possibility that the Scythian tribes buried their dead and performed their religious rites there, erecting the statues of their prominent leaders. He says that the noted Ukrainian archaeologist, Terenozhkin, was probably right when he insisted that the stone statues were placed along the perimeter of the Scythian state, that they were regarded as deities that stood guard of the Scythian lands.

Says Tupchiienko: “Back in 1990 a National Geographic journalist visited Kirovohrad. She wanted to take pictures of the Scythian statues by our local history museum. She chose one and requested that it be moved to the steppe and placed on a kurhan burial mound. I explained that all the statues were cemented into the ground by the museum, so extracting this one would take time and money. She agreed to photograph it right there – and she liked the presence of a single foot-high wheat grass blade at the foot of the monument, saying it symbolized steppe Ukraine. But then Yurii Boltryk, the archaeologist from Kyiv who accompanied her, ripped the plant from the ground, right in front of the camera, the American visitor became angry.”

Even if the museum management cared about the safety of the statues in front of the building, they obviously did not care about the young graffiti artists. Removing the results of their “creative endeavors,” using aggressive agents, damaged the original relief image. As it is, the statues are being overgrown with lichen and falling apart. Experts say this is because of acid industrial emissions; also, that temperature, wind, and precipitation can damage any stone structures, especially statues dating back more than 2.5 thousand years. Under the circumstances, they could turn into shapeless stones several years from now.

There is one way to preserve them, by placing them in a lapidarium, but there is a big difference between good intentions and the way they can be implemented in Ukraine.

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